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CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
Actors' Theatre of Washington (ATW) and Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC) take us back to the mid-twentieth century with their co-production of Jean Genet's Deathwatch. The production is an intense and compelling mounting of a taut drama about three inmates in a French prison who vie for leadership of their cell, each man using his own unique strengths, in an escalating torrent of one upmanship. Not a production for the faint of heart, this is a gritty retelling of Genet's classic work, which is strangely relevant to today's society. As you watch the men on stage you realize not much has changed since Genet wrote the play in 1942 while he, himself, was in prison.
One of France's greatest writers Jean Genet celebrated the outcasts of society where he began and spent much of his life. Abandoned by his parents, Genet was intricately knowledgeable about France's reformatory system, since he spent much of his youth in and out of prison. In fact, in 1948 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for stealing, but through the efforts of colleagues like Cocteau and Sartre he was pardoned. His writing is incredibly lyrical for the subject matter that he is discussing. And being a master of homo-eroticism, Genet's play is a constant brew of male lust, with some surprising moments of dark humor that are incredibly insightful and funny.
Deathwatch centers around three men -- Green Eyes, Georgie, and Maurice. Green Eyes (Peter Klaus) is an illiterate, muscled hulk of a man who rules the cell by virtue of his hyper-masculinity and brawn, although he is not as dense as his cell mates believe. George Lefranc (Christopher Henley), known as Georgie, is the intellectual who reads Green Eyes' girlfriend's letters and then responds back to the unseen woman for the bigger man. While he ostensibly does this to ingratiate himself to Green Eyes, it becomes apparent that he has an ulterior motive for his assistance. Maurice (Jeffrey Johnson) is a slender and handsome youth, who relies on his wit, charm, and good looks to get by in life. The most recent addition to the cell, he is drawn to Green Eyes' masculinity for sex and protection, but is also emotionally infatuated with the man. The story is a look into how prison mates vie for status and power via their crimes and how that status is determined by the type and circumstance of the crime. It's also a look into human nature under extreme conditions showing to what lengths people will go to survive and determine their own destinies.
Co-directors Lee Mikeska Gardner and Matty Griffiths have created a world of cinder block bleakness and despair for their setting. From the moment you enter the tiny black box at the Warehouse Theater you sense the claustrophobic atmosphere of the prison system and its stifling sense of outside world deprivation. The space is a perfect place for this bleak tale and Mikeska Gardner and Griffiths have pulled wonderful performances from their cast.
Set Designer, Kim Deane, and Lighting Designer, Marianne Meadows, have joined forces to create an intricate cell within a cell effect. With a dark scrim to separate audience and actors, the audience feels as though it is in a cell, as well as the actors on stage. Filling out the set, Deane has placed concrete blocks and more concrete blocks all around. These create a ramp for "The Guard" (played by John Francis Bauer) to walk slowly around the entire stage, always patrolling the prisoners. Meadows has used brightly lit florescent lights to create cell bars. More floor lights are hidden behind the cinder blocks along the back perimeter of the floor. The lighting is far from harsh, since so much of the set is black it actually offsets the darkness quite well. Added to this are Projection Designers Matty Griffiths and Maxwell Hessman's occasional disturbing slide projections that highlight scenes from the outside world.
David Crandall's sound design is perfect for the atmospheric mood of the piece. With slight bells ringing, water falling in the distance, and music that would make Twilight Zone proud you get the audio sense of confinement and precious time passing. Michele Reisch's costumes evoke an exotic prison system. The actors wear similar tan outfits covered with vague tattoo-like images that seem like they might be a travelogue to each man's past. The prisoners are further individualized by the way they wear their prison garb. Green Eyes is in a cut off shirt showing off his biceps, while Maurice is in a tied at the waist number to show his more effeminate nature. Georgie is always wearing layers, seemingly in an attempt to be taken seriously by both inmates and guards.
Peter Klaus is especially compelling as the violent Green Eyes. One minute near tears, the next raging, he struts across the stage like a caged lion waiting to pounce. Thinking that his cell mates are really after his girlfriend, Klaus brings a level of humor to the heterosexual man deluding himself that he is having gay sex so that other men can see the tattoo of a woman emblazoned on his chest. And when he declares "I've got rights. I'm the man." you realize that, headed for the guillotine, this is all he has -- the status of his position in the cell.
ATW's Artistic Director, Jeffrey Johnson, creates a sycophant Maurice who is wonderfully ingratiating. His character provides a great level of amusement with statements like "Even when I'm innocent people think I'm guilty. I'm too good looking." Johnson delivers these lines with the just right amount of smarminess to make you feel that being locked in a cell with Maurice might be more than anyone could take. Not just a vacuous pretty boy, Maurice, is attempting to pull the strings of the cell in this deadly game where each man is armed with the weapons life has provided them -- and Maurice is just as deadly as the other two.
Christopher Henley, WSC's Artistic Director, brings a pathetic level of desperation to Georgie. Even though he is about to be freed he still needs the respect of testosterone filled prisoners like Green Eyes and Snowball (an unseen black inmate who rules the entire prison) in order to validate his existence. Henley's character may say the most about each of us and our insecure desires to be noticed by the famous, the powerful, and the beautiful in order to feel a sense of worth.
As the Guard, John Francis Bauer is almost silent the entire performance. Mikeska Gardner and Griffiths have him pacing, almost unseen, in a Kabuki-like manner that is hypnotic to watch. His military, chiseled features go far in a big brother role that relies on appearance and physical interpretation the majority of the play.
If you have a bad back, be certain to arrive early. While the general admission seating allows audience members to find their own seats, those with a bad back will find the 90 minute, intermissionless performance to be uncomfortable on the cushions set up in the front two rows. However, if you love being pulled into the performance, then by all means choose the cushions.
Deathwatch as presented by ATW and WSC is lyrical, stirring, riveting, and compelling. A challenge for audience and actors, it's definitely something to see.
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Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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